Municipalities may, to different extents, be legitimate in the eyes of their citizens. This project aims at developing theory about local legitimacy and to empirically analyze variations in the legitimacy of Swedish municipalities. What distinguishes local government legitimacy from other forms of legitimacy? To what extent, how and why does municipal legitimacy vary, both between municipalities and as perceived by different individuals? Empirical studies have included a reanalysis of a citizens survey, carried out in 210 municipalities and with responses from a total of 200 000 citizens. The research project was financed by The Swedish Science Research Council.
This project is about the legitimacy of Swedish municipalities and how variation may be accounted for – at both municipal and individual levels. Legitimacy is a key concept in political science and is crucial for understanding how the political system functions. However, although local governments are political systems in their own right, there has been surprisingly little research about this phenomenon. In this project, municipal legitimacy is defined as the extent to which the citizens in the municipality accept the municipal decision-makers right to exert authority. In operational terms, it is based on citizens’ evaluation of the way that the local political system functions.
The main questions that have been addressed are:
1. How do different forms of legitimacy vary? A distinction is made between whether citizens can influence decisions (inputs) and their views on the quality of the services provided (output).
2. How can variation be accounted for? To what extent are there differences between forms of legitimacy (input and output), different contexts (municipalities) and/or individuals?
3. Can the level of legitimacy be influenced by local political means, i.e. can the elected politicians themselves improve or undermine citizen acceptance of the system?
4. To what extent are different types of legitimacy interrelated? Do they complement each other or are they alternatives?
Most of the questions have been analyzed on the basis of an extensive survey carried out in 2010 by Statistics Sweden in 111 Swedish municipalities, complemented with register-based background data. A total of 50 800 individual responses have been analyzed. In addition, interviews have been conducted in four municipalities where the questionnaire has indicated that there are different levels of local government legitimacy. Apart from local political decision-makers, civil servants and representatives of civil society organizations were also interviewed.
The project has generated theoretical and empirical results that have contributed to an increased understanding of local government legitimacy. An important theoretical contribution has been to problematize the often taken for granted assumption that different categories of legitimacy are coherent. In particular output legitimacy may be highly dependent on the type of services that local government provide. Some outputs are basic collective services that are determined exclusively locally, e.g. road maintenance and municipal cultural facilities. Other may be highly integrated into multi-level systems of governance, where the specific local component may be difficult to discern. In a Scandinavian setting, it is relevant to distinguish between basic collective services and welfare services. The studies clearly suggest that the patterns of explanations are different between these two forms of legitimacy. For example, individual and municipal well-being is conducive for a positive view on the local welfare services that are provided, but have no effect on citizens’ appreciation of the basic collective services.
Our studies demonstrate that legitimacy is a function of both individual- and contextual (municipal) variables. The individual level analyses suggest that women, older persons and wealthy citizens have more positive views on legitimacy, although not for all forms. The findings also provide support for the assumption that local policies can make a difference for legitimacy. For example, local policies aiming at improving democracy have an effect on input legitimacy and so does municipal spending on culture, leisure and infrastructure on basic collective legitimacy. However, spending on welfare services does not improve legitimacy related to welfare. Finally, the different types of legitimacy empirically complement each other. A municipality with strong input legitimacy also tend to have high levels of any or both types of output legitimacy.